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May 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 8

Grab a MOOC by the Horns

These seven strategies will help you tame the beast for teacher professional development.

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By now you have likely heard the term MOOC. Maybe it conjured up a wild beast romping through the wilderness, horns at the ready. A MOOC isn't a breathing animal, but it is barreling through the field of education with noticeable force.
A MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, is typically a free or nearly free course provided online to large numbers of students at the same time. The first MOOC was launched in 2008 by the University of Manitoba with more than 2,000 students enrolled. This MOOC, called Connectivism and Connected Knowledge, was a student-centered course that was heavily dependent on students learning from one another. In 2011, Stanford University launched the first truly large-scale MOOC with 160,000 students learning about artificial intelligence through video lectures and interactive discussion forums.
At this time, a new market of MOOC providers opened up, offering courses in nearly every subject imaginable. MOOC participants were able to collect digital badges for MOOC completion, thus incentivizing completion and establishing a digital currency of credentials. The disruption caused by MOOCs has mostly been felt in higher education, as learners across the globe equipped with only an Internet-connected computer, English proficiency, and a will to learn have begun accessing college courses from Ivy League professors. Other institutions of higher education became worried that Ivy League schools were going to essentially offer degrees for free, putting everyone else out of business. It looked like MOOCs were going to make a high-end college education cheaper and accessible across the globe (Educause, 2011).
However, like many innovations, MOOCs hit a peak of inflated expectations and have recently tumbled into a trough of disillusionment. Few research studies have extolled the benefits of this innovation (Daly, 2013; Ferdig, 2013). In the past five years, we have learned that only a small percentage of MOOC enrollees ever finish the course, and most of those students are college graduates seeking new skills who would have had access to these or similar courses when they were in college. Unfortunately, MOOCs are not solving the problem of equal access to higher education nor are they bringing social justice to the masses.
A recent paper released by MIT and Harvard suggests that measuring MOOC success by completion percentages is misleading and that other measures of success may illuminate the true value of this innovation (Ho et al., 2014). When students join a MOOC, they can engage with as much or as little of the content as they choose, with few consequences. In contrast to face-to-face university classes or traditional professional development, this freedom—unique to MOOCs—brings large numbers of enrollees, but few completers.
As both a MOOC student and a MOOC professor, I believe it's time to move MOOCs onto a path of reinvention.

MOOCs and K–12 Education

K–12 education has not been completely omitted from the MOOC trend. MOOCs have recently begun to pop up with offerings for K–12 students, including an Advanced Placement Computer Science MOOC by Amplify and several other MOOCs aiming to prepare high school seniors for college (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Rapp, 2013).
MOOCs are also becoming a popular option for teacher professional development (Coursera, 2013; Ferdig, 2013; McCully, 2012). So what does this mean for school leaders? How can K–12 school systems harness the power of MOOCs to bring down the cost of systemwide professional development? How can they ensure that MOOCs are powerful and fulfilling learning experiences for teachers?
I see MOOCs as the next frontier in teacher professional development. I have attended about a dozen MOOCs, mostly on topics related to teaching, cognitive science, or technology. These courses vary in quality and interactivity. Some offer little more than a simple lecture and quiz format; others incorporate social media activities, lively discussion forums, and peer grading. MOOC professors may or may not get involved in class discussions and offer feedback on projects and assignments.
This past year, I had the opportunity to develop and teach Kennesaw State University's first MOOC, K12 Blended and Online Learning. With the help of a dedicated team, I took what we know MOOCs do well and developed a course that could stand alone as a standard MOOC (one that a student would take on his or her own) or that could be part of a district's teacher professional development program. This course has been my opportunity to investigate whether MOOCs can serve as an anchor to schoolwide or district professional development initiatives at no cost or relatively low cost. It will take some time to gather evidence of results, but my experiences with MOOCs have kept me hopeful.

Getting Started with MOOCs

If you want to test the MOOCy waters for K–12 teacher professional development, you need to make a plan to get the most out of MOOCs. While we wait for research to catch up with the MOOC phenomenon, I made a list of seven tips based on my own experiences and on the literature on best practice in teacher professional development, including Learning Forward's (2011) Standards for Professional Development. These tips are intended to help school leaders harness MOOCs to develop capacity and create support systems for professional learning.
  1. Seek out the best MOOCs for your school goals. Not every MOOC is worth teachers' time. Consider your goals for educator performance and student curriculum standards. You may be moving teachers to a blended learning model or incorporating a new reading instructional strategy as stated in a school improvement plan. Seek out courses that fit the goals already established in these school and district plans. To get started, you can browse the most popular providers like Coursera, Udacity, and EdX. You can also find a regularly updated list of <LINK URL="http://www.moocs.co/K-12_MOOCs.html">MOOCs related to K–12 education</LINK>. Expect the variety of offerings to expand over the next few years.
  2. Make a systemwide menu of MOOCs for professional learning. Once you have identified the courses that fit your school or individual teacher goals, publish a list of these MOOCs. Ask teachers to select one or more courses that accomplish their professional learning goals and to notify you of their choices. Consider the motivating factors that work best for your school or district; however, I recommend keeping MOOCs optional while offering incentives for completion through recognition programs, professional learning credits, or stipends. Teachers will need to enroll on their own, but system-approved lists mean school leaders can feel confident knowing teachers are selecting courses that meet system goals and that have been vetted for quality. Send out encouraging e-mails before the MOOCs begin.
  3. Make the MOOC social. Professional learning networks, teams of teachers, or even entire faculties can take a MOOC together. Help teachers in your school or district who are enrolling in the same MOOC to find one another by posting a sign-up list. Provide a designated time and space each week during a MOOC for teachers to meet and work together. If teachers are not located in the same building, recommend a neutral location to meet or enable them to meet online using a tool like Skype or Google Hangouts.Establish a leader who is enrolling in the MOOC. That leader should set the meeting agenda, hold teachers accountable to the MOOC due dates, and provide encouragement. During these "meet ups," as they are called in the MOOC world, activities might include collective synthesis of new concepts, discussion of how to apply course concepts in your setting, brainstorming of opportunities for collaboration, and peer critique of course assignments.
  4. Use the MOOC as a springboard for ongoing teacher learning. Professional learning is most effective when it is ongoing. MOOC assignments are rarely (if ever) group projects, but you can plan collaborative follow-up projects for teams of teachers that build on those assignments and get teachers working together. Work with teachers taking a MOOC together to make a rotational classroom observation plan, in which teachers watch one another practice their new skills.In the MOOC I teach, K12 Blended and Online Learning, teachers leave with three products. First, they create a syllabus to set the classroom policies and expectations for a healthy blended or online learning environment. Second, they plan a unit of blended or online instruction. Third, they develop an online module from their unit plan that they can use with their students. Excellent follow-up learning might involve collaboratively building new blended modules, observing teachers as they implement the modules with students, and collaboratively reviewing data on the effectiveness of specific modules or of a larger blended learning initiative.
  5. Collect and analyze MOOC data. Measure completion rates among your staff. Send out a survey to determine the quality of each course, what teachers learned from the course, and how they believe the course will affect their classroom practice. Conduct observations, or establish peer observations, to identify teacher practice outcomes. Aggregated student achievement data may also help you identify changes within classrooms taught by teachers who completed MOOCs. Be sure to keep in mind the learning goals of the MOOCs that teachers have taken when conducting observations and collecting data.
  6. Incorporate MOOC completion into teacher evaluation structures. Carefully selected MOOCs may provide affordable training solutions that help teachers meet evaluation-related goals. However, teachers may need guidance and incentives to persevere with MOOCs. Requesting professional learning credits from state licensing agencies for MOOC completion may provide the necessary incentives. Many state licensing agencies require professional development credits for teacher licensure renewal, and some MOOCs may offer the caliber of professional learning these agencies expect. Although I am not sure how MOOC badging trends will play out, districts and schools could gamify the process of teacher professional development by adopting a badge system through which teachers earn badges or other recognition for each course they complete (Ferdig, 2013).
  7. Get in on the MOOC action. Higher education institutions are not the only qualified entities to develop and teach MOOCs. School districts can also create MOOCs on topics of interest to their teachers and students. Building a MOOC development team should start with connecting an instructional designer, professional development staff, and a learning management system administrator. Then as the team begins to design the course, they need to plan each component, including assessments that take into account the potential high enrollment in the course. External instructional design experts can also serve as consultants to get the ball rolling.
If you can't develop your own MOOC, contact a MOOC professor or provider to see if you can offer your teachers their course, facilitated by your own school or district personnel. This will enable you to offer the course on your own schedule and customize it to your local needs. Some MOOC professors make their course materials and structure available as open educational resources, and others are available through the platform provider for a fee.

Making MOOCs Work for You

While searching for MOOCs, you don't have to complete every MOOC that piques your interest. Just sign up, browse, and evaluate. If you don't have the time to browse MOOCs, delegate this task to a professional development coordinator or a grade-level chair. Because of the sometimes high cost of developing a MOOC, courses are typically offered more than once, if not several times. If teachers respond well to a course, encourage them to help spread the word about its value the next time it's offered.
Stand-alone MOOCs that teachers take on their own may not match best practices of teacher professional learning; but by tying these beasts to local support structures, you can make MOOCs a powerful new part of your district's professional development offerings.

Coursera. (2013, September 27). Teacher professional development fall line up [blog post]. Retrieved from Coursera Blog at http://blog.coursera.org/post/62456602609/teacher-professional-development-fall-lineup

Daly, J. (2013). 80 percent of MOOC students already have college degrees. EdTech Focus on Higher Education. Retrieved from www.edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2013/12/80-percent-mooc-students-already-have-college-degree

Educause. (2011). Educause learning initiative: 7 things you should know about MOOCs. Louisville, CO: Author. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eli7078.pdf

Ferdig, R. E. (2013). What massive open online courses have to offer K–12 teachers and students. Lansing: Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. Retrieved from http://media.mivu.org/institute/pdf/mooc_report.pdf

Ho, A. D., Reich, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D. T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., &amp; Chuang, I. (2014). HarvardX and MITx: The first year of open online courses (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1). Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2381263

Learning Forward. (2011). Standards for professional learning. Oxford, OH: Author.

McCully, G. (2012). "University unbound" rebounds: Can MOOCs "educate" as well as train? New England Journal of Higher Education, 5, 1–4.

Watson, J., Murin, A., Vashaw, L., Gemin, B., &amp; Rapp, C. (2013). Keeping pace with online and blended learning: An annual review of policy and practice. Durango, CO: Evergreen Education Group. Retrieved from http://kpk12.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/EEG_KP2013-lr.pdf

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